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Preparing A New Course VS. Impostor Syndrome

Ideally, developing a new course will entail excitement about all of the possible topics, readings, discussions, and assignments.  (I said “ideally,” ok?)  It usually does for me, but that little bit of uncertainty, which probably fuels others’ excitement, expands into all out impostor syndrome.  Unfortunately, that leads to a much longer and tortuous process, and sometimes continues to shape the course throughout the semester.  In this post, I hope to offer a few tips for others who may struggle with impostor syndrome, particularly while developing a new course.

The Impostor Professor

First, let me briefly give some personal background.  I taught two semesters, followed by a summer course at another university, during my third year of graduate school.  Thanks to a fellowship, I did not teach again until I started in my current position.  So, that is one year’s worth of teaching experience, followed by three years without teaching; in hindsight, being rusty and inexperienced, while adjusting to a new job and place was not ideal.  I did take two of the three courses that my graduate department offered toward a Preparing Future Faculty certificate.  I dropped the certificate because my plans for the final course’s project fell through, and I found no resistance to giving up all together.  But, I hear that those two courses are still more training that many scholars receive on teaching.  Still, I feel I was not adequately prepared to to hit the ground running in the classroom.

My process for developing new courses has been the same (i.e., a shit show).  I start by panicking — what could I possibly teach about X?!  Then, I collect and scour as many syllabi on X as I can find on the internet and from colleagues who are willing to share.  Using these as models, I narrow down the topics of each lecture, and then the assigned readings, based on what it seems are the core subjects.  In the back of my head, I know that about 25% of the topics have never crossed my mind, so I will have to prepare those lectures from scratch (i.e., learning about it first, then frantically deciding what I will teach).  Indeed, those days bring stress and anxiety right on schedule.  “I do not know the first thing about this subject/don’t care!”  Panic.  Then, search for documentaries; then, relevant activities.  If all of the above fail, I can turn to discussion or group work.  No surprise, these classes are hit or miss.  And, the classes that go ok actually feel as though I got lucky.  Ok or awful, I usually return to my office after class feeling unqualified or incompetent, and may or may not fight the tears that threaten to come.

Source of Self-Doubt

I attempted to change my approach when preparing for this semester’s courses over the summer.  The biggest, semi-successful change was to start course preparations earlier in the summer, rather than waiting until August.  I planned to flip my fall and spring schedules: spend at least an hour on teaching in the morning, and devote the rest of the day to research.  That did not quite happen, but I got an early start.

The other change was to devote at least some time in the course on topics I study, find interesting, and/or am passionate about.  I did, but, because I still started out using textbooks and others’ syllabi as my guide for the core subjects.  Half of the first draft of my syllabus for my Medical Sociology course contained subjects I know/care little about.  When a colleague challenged me to focus more on the course I want to teach, two sources of my self-doubt were revealed.

First, which I have already noted, is setting a standard that my new course must meet.  I start the preparation process by letting others’ expertise (or so I assume) dictate what I should teach.  Thus, I create a challenge for myself to push my expertise to reach others’ standards.  At an unconscious level, I fear that others will look at my syllabi and deem them unacceptable or sub-par, and dismiss my expertise on the subject.  I never start out asking my own expert self, “what should I teach — what are the most important topics and what skills do I want my students to learn?”

The second source, which surprised me, was a fear that letting my passions and interests guide the preparation would lead me to a course deemed biased or “too activist” by other scholars.  For my Medical Sociology course, I initially hesitated to give more than a day to LGBTQ health because no other instructor or textbook gave even a passing reference to LGBTQ communities (though, maybe in their coverage of HIV/AIDS).  Could I justify a lecture on sexual orientation and health, and another on transgender health?  My colleague reminded me that, if I decide against covering trans health in my course, my students will likely leave college never learning about it (or trans communities in general!).  I am guilty of letting what I deem as the mainstream standard trump my interest in teaching students about LGBTQ issues, and intersectionality, and fatphobia, and sexual health, etc.!  If including these subjects is “too activist,” then excluding them is reproducing the status quo of higher education.  It is my duty, in my humble opinion, as an educator to introduce my students to these systematically overlooked communities and issues.

Excusing Impostor Syndrome From Class

From my inexperienced, still self-doubting perspective, I offer the following tips for developing new courses:

  1. Remember that you are an expert.  At a minimum for some instructors, this means finding confidence in knowing that you know more about the material than your students.  Even if it is brand new to you, you have developed skills to be able to teach anything (within reason)!  In a pinch, you probably have a few tools in your teaching toolkit: class or small group discussion, activities, in-class assignments, documentaries, relevant current events, etc.
  2. Start course preparations from your expertise.  Academic freedom, y’all!  That is, assuming you were not assigned to teach a course that is far outside of your expertise.  One approach that helped me as I finally crafted a Medical Sociology syllabus that actually reflected my areas of expertise was to jot down all of the topics that I knew I could teach at that moment with little preparation.  My list did not exhaust the number of days in the semester, but it came pretty close.
  3. Be practical — start choosing readings from what you have already read.  One mistake I often made was searching for the readings — what are the articles that I kept seeing on others’ syllabi?  Sure, there may be some classical pieces that you really should assign.  But, the others could be contemporary examples, or counterarguments, or even personal narratives.  By letting others’ models dictate what I should assign, I added to my frantic lecture prep days the task of reading all of the articles that I assigned that I had never read before.
  4. Start course preparations from your passion.  Let go of the myth of the dispassionate, objective instructor.  Embrace what you know you could talk about for 75 minutes straight.  Your passion may rub off on your students, and their piqued interest will further fuel yours.  If not, at least you will avoid the combination of not caring about the topic and seeing bored faces before you for 75 minutes.
  5. STOP using others as a model, at least from the beginning.  If you can, maybe check out what other instructors cover if you are stumped on the last few topics to cover or readings to assign.  If many instructors go through this same fumbling, impostor syndrome-fuelded course preparation process, we probably cannot trust others’ courses to serve as a model.  One major mistake I made was to attempt to replicate the breadth-focused approach of courses taught at research-intensive courses; my institution would prefer I cover fewer subjects, but in-depth.  Another mistake I have made is using seasoned scholars’ courses as a standard to achieve — people who have been teaching as long as I have been alive, with ample opportunities to perfect their courses.  It is a simple (and expected) fact: this new course will be shitty the first time, but I can improve it in future semesters.  Finally, I do myself and my students a disservice by using “traditional” (i.e., exclusive) approaches; I have an opportunity to model for my students (and maybe other instructors) that certain topics are relevant and important for a course.
  6. Ease up on self-evaluation.  Course evaluations come at the end of the course, not the beginning.  And, yes, while they are imperfect (and somewhat biased), their purpose is to give feedback to improve the courses for the next time you teach them.  It will not be perfect the first time — or ever, really.  And, improvement as an instructor is valued (e.g., tenure and promotion)!  Hopefully, you will start out with your own syllabus and setup an exciting semester, with room for improvement in following semesters, rather than setting up a test of your qualifications.
  7. Become a better teacher.  At a minimum, ask a friend or trusted colleague to observe one of your classes, and offer feedback afterward.  In turn, attend her class so that you can see another model for teaching.  (It seems what makes this hardest is that we teach in a vacuum, never seeing what other people do in the classroom!)  If you have to be observed for formal evaluations, plan to have someone who will not evaluate you observe your class before these formal observations.  Attend on-campus workshops about teaching and pedagogy, as well as local and national teaching conferences.  It can be refreshing to realize so many instructors struggle with self-doubt about teaching.

That is all I have for now.  Please offer other teaching suggestions either as a comment, or even a guest blog post!

Underestimated

I am well aware that this post may dissolve into self-centered, defensive mess.  But, it is worth the risk of appearing “arrogant,” “entitled,” and… what is the other insult my anonymous online haters have used?  Oh, and “whiny.”  If you read further, you cannot say that I did not warn you.  I need to say this.  And, if I actually end up publishing this on the blog, it means I think others can relate, or at least find something useful to take from my experiences.

Two years ago, I received some less-than-supportive feedback in response to my plan to finish my dissertation in a year, while going full-force on the academic job market.  “It’s too much work.”  “You’re dissertation will be ‘good,’ but not ‘great.'”  “You won’t get a job.”  “You won’t get a good job.”  “You’re not ready.”  “At least apply to dissertation fellowships, as well.”  “You won’t have time to think.”  I forged ahead anyhow; I could barely stand the thought of the upcoming year, let alone two more years.  With encouragement from my partner, family, and friends, I decided against limiting my sights on the prized R1 path.

With a job offer in hand from the school I liked, that is near my family, and would celebrate my intellectual activism, I received less-than-supportive feedback again.  “You’ll be come irrelevant.”  “You’ll slow down in publishing.”  “Sure, you’ll be happy, but…”  “I would decline the offer in hopes for an interview at a [R1 school].”  I forged ahead anyhow.  With the encouragement of my partner, family, and friends, I accepted my current position.

After Year 1…

  • I am content in my new job, finding support for my research, scholarship, and advocacy.
  • I had two articles published, including one that was the lead article in the top journal of my subfield.  (A second article has an R&R there.)
  • I received a $3,000 internal teaching grant to develop a new course (Medical Sociology).
  • I will be awarded the Best Dissertation Award from the ASA Section on Mental Health in August.  (Not “good,” not “great,” but the “best!“)
  • I was elected as a council member for the ASA Section on Sexualities, a three-year position.
  • I was invited to join the editorial board for Contexts magazine, to begin a three-year term in January 2015.

Let me be clear — I would not have had as many choices regarding my career path without the support of my committee and the high quality of my training.  But, I do worry they were a little too cautious, even pessimistic.  In some ways, I feel I was underestimated.  And, recognizing that means I cannot help to begin to wonder about other ways in which I was not pushed, or that I did not push myself, to go farther.  If anything, it means recognizing others’ good intentions, considering their advice, but making sure to listen to my own gut and heart.  In the end, it is my life; I have to be willing to live with, and learn from, the mistakes I make along the way.  So far, I do not regret my decisions one bit.

Back From Teaching Bootcamp

Earlier this month, I attended the summer Teaching and Learning Workshop of the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS), held at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX.  ACS is an organization of private liberal arts colleges in the US South, including my own institution (University of Richmond).  My university offered funding for any faculty, especially those of us on the tenure-track, to attend, as this summer program can enhance one’s teaching.  I jumped at the opportunity to attend, admittedly, in part, to signal my immediate willingness to grow as a teacher.  I attended the program genuinely open to learning and receiving feedback on areas where I may improve, and I ended up finding the workshop extremely helpful.

The crux of the teaching training at the summer workshop is microteaching.  Workshop attendees were divided into groups of six, in which we stayed for the week.  In these groups, we took turns teaching a seven-minute “slice” of a full lecture.  Other members of one’s group participated as students, took notes, asked questions, and attempted to understand the material — but as themselves, not pretending to be a typical student.  The slice was recorded, and immediately played back for the class.  Before and after playback of the slice, the teacher reflected on how the lesson went, and offered specific concerns and areas of improvement for the class to attend to.  Then, guided by the teacher’s reflections, students articulated what they thought, felt, and experienced during the slice.  The major challenge during these reflection sessions was for the teacher to simply listen to the students’ experiences without responding, and for students to avoid giving advice or reflecting on what should/could/would happen outside of the slice.

As you can imagine, this process challenged each workshop attendee.  Finding a solid seven minutes of material, which would hopefully be engaging and understandable to a group of students outside of your own discipline, was tough.  And, seven minutes seemed to be just enough time to get started, but to stop just before getting to the heart of one’s lecture or exercise.  Many — myself included — find it strange, even uncomfortable, to watch yourself teach immediately after the slice, and then to hear how five other instructors-as-learners experienced the lesson.

This aspect of the workshop was extremely powerful for me — and emotional.  In each of the three slices that I taught, I was asked to open up about how the experience of teaching was for me.  This usually meant expressing self-doubt, worry, and uncertainty.  And, watching the playback offered even more opportunity to be my biggest critic.  Ironically, nothing the students said was ever as harsh as the things I said about my teaching.  In fact, the feedback was generally positive, including the sentiment that my self-identified nervousness was never apparent to my students.  (Although, several students mentioned my nervousness in their course evaluations of one of my spring semester classes.)  There were a few areas wherein students felt uncomfortable or confused, but I could readily identify how to improve the lecture in my mind.

This process is also designed to make us feel safe and braver as teachers.  We were encouraged to experiment and take risks with each subsequent microteaching session.  I took the program staff up on this challenge.  On day 2, I pushed myself to use John R. Brouillette and Ronny E. Turner’s “spit” exercise to teach social constructionism, even though I felt other academics would find the exercise silly or childish.  Fortunately, this exercise went well and was very effective.  This usually goes well in my classes.  But, in this context, the immediate feedback session allowed me to hear why.  These students were able to pinpoint their own visceral reaction to someone’s spit as driving home the point that “spit” (how we understand and react to it) is socially constructed.

On the third day, I challenged myself to give a lecture on sexual violence.  As usual, I agonized over this lecture, worrying that it might upset students.  The slice went fine.  But, when invited to express how I felt after seeing the video of me teaching, I got choked up.  Though not at a conscious level, I had found a safe space to express how charged the topic has been for me, in general and specifically in the classroom.  I left that microteaching session feeling encouraged and empowered to take more risks in the classroom — and to feel comfortable having certain emotions related to the lecture.

Outside of teaching, we attended daily plenaries that exposed us to various classroom activities and teaching styles.  Some of these sessions were devoted to reflection, either to process what we had done earlier that day or to develop goals for teaching upon our return home.  In a later plenary, we were asked to choose one issue that we had not had the chance to address yet during the week, which we would share with a small group and receive feedback.  I felt reassured to hear that I did not appear nervous when teaching, but feeling nervous and the pesky issue of self-doubt in general continued to plague me.  During this plenary, I received encouragement and many suggestions to kick self-doubt to the curb for good.

Clearly, I enjoyed the workshop!  Admittedly, I did not feel up to attending, as it was scheduled right at the point that I felt recovered from academic year.  But, it was truly worthwhile, providing feedback on teaching that you cannot find anywhere else.  I highly recommend attending ACS’s or similar workshops.

Can I Let Go Of Fear Yet?

Since the start of my graduate training, I have wrestled with fear related to my career in academia.  As the stakes have gotten higher, and my scholarly platform has expanded, that fear has remained a constant fixture in my life.  This is now my fourth year living with generalized anxiety disorder.  With my anxiety piqued after a recent short post-semester vacation, I began wondering whether a post on fear was relevant to other academics; maybe it is just a symptom of my own mental health.

After a quick Google search of “fear in academia,” I found that others had already written about it — and, that the fear-anxiety link is not unique to me.  Graduate students are afraid their graduate training will be in vain, at least in terms of securing a tenure-track jobContingent faculty are afraid that they will never get out of the trap of temporary academic employment — and that they may face retaliation for speaking out about the awful conditions of many adjuncts.  Those in tenure-track positions fear being denied tenure.  Those who ultimately decide to leave academia fear the unknown beyond the ivory tower — a path for which too few of us are trained.  And, if not controlled, an academic may know fear her entire life career.

I have had many conversations with my colleagues and administrators about my institution’s tenure expectations.  To be honest, the institution could give me an explicit set of guidelines — down to the number of publications, in what journals, the minimum acceptable teaching evaluations and pedagogical enhancement, and “safe” forms of service — and I would still be anxious en route to tenure.  Though I usually ask about research expectations, my concerns often shift to my public scholarship (i.e., blogging).  Is there a chance I would be denied tenure, or possibly terminated well before then, because of my public writing?  Each time, I am reminded that 1) I was hired, in part, because of my public scholarship, 2) it is essentially impossible that a stellar scholar-teacher would be let go over a blog, and 3) it seems strange that I am so worried about this unlikely scenario.

Where Is This Fear Coming From?

To be blunt, I do not offer my complete faith and trust to other people, especially those I only know on a professional basis.  And, I certainly do not trust an institution to have my best personal and professional interests in mind.  (Call it paranoia, if you wish.  I call it survival.)  I will believe tenure and promotion are likely when they are awarded to me.  Though we like to buy into the myth of meritocracy in academia, and believe that scholars and academic institutions are bias-free, I see enough evidence to the contrary in academia.

The oppressed person’s skepticism aside, I have also located this fear at the heart of my academic training.  Graduate school was not simply a time marked by fear of the future.  It was the training ground to become a fearful, obedient academic.  Effective academic professional socialization seems to demand that we hyperinternalize the criticisms of our advisors, experts in our field, anonymous reviewers, journal editors, conference panel organizers, and every other colleague we encounter, as well as our anonymous student evaluations.  Intellectual innovation is necessary to advance in one’s career — yet, anything too far outside of tradition and the mainstream may be punished.  Silence and conformity (and fear) become valued traits of a young scholar’s career.

Even as I publicly declared that I would pursue tenure my way — embracing the values of accessibility, authenticity, and advocacy — I still struggle 12 months later with the professional fear that I internalized in graduate school.  My first year on the tenure-track has been a roller coaster ride of speaking up and retreating into silence, authenticity and conformity, bravery and fear.

On one hand, I successfully fought for a career path that would allow me to be a vocal public scholar.  This work does not “count” (but, does lead to things that do).  I am relieved to find the reactions to this public scholarship ranges between indifference and pride; in other words, at least it will not count against me professionally.  Yet, it feels as though my institution is a bit of an outlier, especially while other universities are formally cracking down on scholars’ use of social media.

On the other hand, I intentionally left the beaten R1 path for the devalued liberal arts path, and actively and publicly pursue intellectual activism.  I often find that I am making it up as I go, with so much available advice that does not fit for me or my priorities.  I remain wary because I have yet to find a role model like me who was successful, despite/because of speaking up as a junior scholar.  Until I see that an uppity fat brown queer feminist activist-academic can successfully win tenure without a hitch, I imagine I will continue to wrestle with finding a happy balance.  I want to be healthy, happy, and authentic, but I also want job security.

I anticipate that I will have more to say on this in the future, hopefully with advice of ridding this fear once and for all!  Stay tuned.

Blogging Counts!

May I rehash the “should I blog or not?” debate for just a brief moment?  In the days that I have been too busy to directly connect with the community outside of my university — last year, dissertating while on the job market, and now as an overwhelmed new professor — I have settled for using social media to make academic scholarship accessible and to make a difference in generalNo matter the risks, blogging can have some impact, hopefully in others’ lives, but academic bloggers, too, may find that these “extracurricular activities” count for something (including research).

Since I started Conditionally Accepted last July, I have received the following invitations to speak, present, or write:

  • To write guest blog posts for Inside Higher Ed: January 22, February 25, March 31, and April 23 (with University of Venus)
  • To interview with the grad student editor of ASA’s Section on Medical Sociology winter newsletter
  • To present on a panel about open scholarship (in my case, intellectual activism) at Virginia Commonwealth University
  • To guest lecture to Dr. Jessica Fields’s graduate level professional seminar in sexuality studies at San Francisco State University (via Skype)
  • To give the keynote speech at the Sociology and Anthropology Honors Ceremony Randolph-Macon College
  • To present on a panel about navigating LGBTQ identities in academia at the upcoming American Sociological Association meeting
  • To present on a panel about using social media as a professional development tool at the upcoming American Sociological Association meeting
  • [Declined] National conference panel on LGBT health
  • [Declined] Panel about LGBT inclusion at a three-day diversity in higher education conference
  • [Declined] National conference panel about navigating the academic job market

Okay, so I said “yes!” to most of these invitations.  I stand by my point that actually entertaining the idea, at least without automatically saying “no!”, has been tremendously helpful to my self-esteem.  For example, when I was introduced before my keynote speech at Randolph-Macon College last night, I heard how genuine the faculty were in being impressed with my advocacy (and my publication record).  I asked myself, why don’t I regularly feel so valued?  Often, your value and success is a given in your home department; and, it is not your colleagues’ job to feed your self-esteem.  Hey, all the more reason to find external appreciation!

But, the personal significance aside, I want to emphasize that I received ten speaking/writing requests in 10 months, primarily because I write publicly about my experiences in academia.  As a first-year professor, I have been invited to speak on a few panels about professional development.  I admit, that also means that I have to quiet the voice that says, “well, it’s clearly a low bar — just write a blog post”; but, self-doubt aside, that is the key point — anyone can write about academia and likely find some interested audience who wants more.  Blogging counts!